Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace ★★★

Honestly I feel more and more fond for this movie whenever I drift back around to it, for all its considerable flaws. The issues are myriad and staggering: multiple characters forged on the backs of racist caricatures; the CG clashes wildly with available elements and looks worse for being added to 35mm film; and, of course, Jake Lloyd. The humor is infantile, and the writing of Anakin fails to flesh him out as a character or even as a portent of coming doom. The final act battle, with its dizzying criss-cross of disconnected action, makes sense on a macro level but proves frequently chaotic in the flitting between locations.

In spite of it all, though, it's grown on me over the years. The CGI in the prequels gives many backdrops a gleaming, too-flat texture, but here it fits into Lucas's depiction of a planet (Naboo) and wider interstellar civilization (the Republic) that have grown stagnant with complacency, reacting to an outright act of war in the blockade of a planet with pure bafflement and reflexive bureaucracy, unable to must so much as an official censure, much less protection.

Fascinating, too, is what the film shows in the nature of Jedi. Mythologized and referred to in reverential tones in the original trilogy, here he see a vast infrastructure of Force users that is defined largely by its smug arrogance. Qui-Gon, stumbling across a slave society on Tattooine, rushes to assure the young slave to whom he takes an interest that he is NOT there to provide emancipation. And when the Jedi Master does, it is only for Anakin, the boy wonder; even the child's mother is immediately and happily abandoned for the sake of nurturing this one kid. Elsewhere, both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are abhorrently sarcastic, mistreating Jar-Jar as a simpleton and barely hiding their disdain for those perceived lower than themselves. (As Anakin prepares to leave his mother forever after single-handedly saving the royal retinue's chances of making it back to the Republic, Obi-Wan responds to news of a new traveler with a sneering "Why do I send that we've picked up another pathetic life form?") Jedi doctrine preaches dogmatic removal and self-development, yet the Jedi Council expressly makes decisions based on political calculation, hopelessly entwined as they are with the Senate.

Admittedly, many of the best aspects of the film have to be willfully interpreted instead of existing clearly in the text, but the true reason that Star Wars over the years has remained a cultural touchstone for how much Lucas's original vision can support the weight of an immense bricolage of built-out continuity and world-building explanations for narrative shortcomings and simple expediencies of filmmaking. The gaps in Lucas's writing leave much room for fleshing out a context, and as a snapshot of a culture unwittingly setting the stage for its own collapse, Episode I is genuinely compelling.

There are other pleasures as well. Seeing Obi-Wan as a cocky youth makes his subsequent maturation all the more meaningful for presenting you with a complex person capable of growth. The saber duel with Maul is the best of the prequels, not only for its exceptional staging but in the way that the more showy form of the prequel saber techniques fits narratively here as Maul's coming out party for the Sith. He is toying with his prey, and both Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are so genuinely caught off-guard that their own fighting is clearly rooted in years of classroom practice rather than brutal, go-for-the-kill combat experience. Also this has my favorite of all the franchise scores, somehow even more boisterous than the original with so many little quotations of themes that do a much more elegant job of portending doom and connecting tendrils to the original trilogy than the film's steady supply of callbacks.

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